The odds against a rookie winning a starting position on a veteran professional football team are about the same as the odds against the new Atlanta Falcons winning the National Football League championship this year. The odds against two rookies are incalculably high, and it clearly is impossible for two rookies to make the same team in the same season and also be chosen All-League.
After a quarterback has spent 10 years in the NFL without creating a noticeable ripple, it is virtually beyond hope for him ever to become a starter. And if he spent 10 years on the phones to the coaches in the press box while worthier teammates ran the club, you could hardly expect him to lead the NFL in passing.
If all these unlikely things happen to one team in one season, you have the equivalent of three successive winning plays on the 13 on a double-zero roulette wheel in Las Vegas—in other words, the Chicago Bears in 1965.
Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in his rookie season, finished second to Jim Brown in rushing and was a unanimous All-Pro. Dick Butkus moved into one of the most difficult defensive jobs in football—middle linebacker—and uprooted Bill George and played the position so well that he was on the Pro Bowl team.
September 11, 1966
Most significant for Chicago championship hopes, 34-year-old Rudy Bukich, who passed USC to a 7-0 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in the long, long ago, came off the bench in the middle of the third game of the year to take over the Bear offense and lead the NFL in passing. Everyone knew about Sayers and Butkus last year, but most people think John Brodie won the passing championship. Yet if the Bears should win the NFL title this year, it will be due primarily to the abilities of erstwhile benchwarmer Rudolph Andrew Bukich (see cover). Sayers and Butkus are back and probably even more effective than they were a year ago, but Bukich was—and still is—the key to the Bears. He is a handsome man, and an intelligent one, with black hair and blue eyes. He has a master's degree in education administration and is working toward a doctorate. Rumor has it that his fabulous arm can fling a football 100 yards through the air, but he denies this, and no one has ever seen him do it. But he can do everything else and he has everything else—accuracy, maturity, judgment—and he just may be worth John Brodie's million-dollar salary.
It is a curious fact that Bukich was the Los Angeles Rams' No. 1 draft choice in 1953, while the man he replaced at Chicago, Billy Wade, was the Rams' first pick in 1952. George Halas, Chicago's owner-coach, had been infatuated with Wade. Billy is an exemplary man and, in the technical sense, a fine quarterback. He can throw a ball accurately a long way—but not as far as Bukich can. Wade is a devout member of his church and does not drink, curse or use tobacco. Yet in his 12 years as a quarterback Wade has not been a winner.
True, the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963 with Wade at quarterback, but that season the defense gave up only 10 points a game, and your maiden Aunt Jessie, provided she could throw a football 20 yards, could have been the Bear quarterback. As it was, the Chicago offense averaged only 22 points a game that year.
The next season, as Bukich sat on the bench, the Bears dropped from first place to sixth in the West. It was early in 1965 that Bukich was given the opportunity to take over the Bear attack. Wade was hurt, and Halas' only other alternative was to play second-year man Larry Rakestraw.
Bukich's invitation to glory came in a disastrous September. The Bears had lost their first two games and were trailing Green Bay 20-0 in the third quarter when Bukich pulled on his navy-blue helmet and strode up behind the Chicago center, Mike Pyle. From that moment he was No. 1. Under his guidance the Bears won the second half of the game by a score of 14-3 in the 23-14 loss. With Bukich in command, Chicago became the sensation of the West, winning nine of the next 11 games and finishing a powerful third to Green Bay and Baltimore.
It had been a long, rough journey up. "When I was ready to turn pro I was in a quandary," Bukich says. "I wanted the Rams to draft me. I wanted to play in Southern California, and I was a Ram fan. At the same time I kind of wanted to be drafted somewhere else, because I knew that I would not get much of a chance to play in Los Angeles. The Ram quarterbacks were Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, and I didn't really expect to take over from them."
Nor did he. After a season on the Ram bench he served a two-year Army hitch, leading Fort Ord to the national service championship. When he returned he was still low man on the Rams, behind Van Brocklin and Wade, and he played very little.
"At least," he says, "Hamp Pool, the Ram coach, took a lot of interest in me. He talked tactics to me, and I learned from him."
Bukich stayed with the Rams until 1958, earning a small reputation for the power of his arm, but he was not an accurate passer. "He could throw the ball a mile," says a Ram coach of those days. "I heard that he could throw it from one goal line to the other, but we never asked him to do that. A guy could throw his arm right out of the park with a fool stunt like that. But he had some arm. I saw him flick a ball 80 yards in the air once in practice. I mean, he dropped back and it looked like it was all wrist—just a flick—and the ball went 80 yards. I didn't believe it."
In Chicago, Halas got an itch to own that arm. "We heard how strong he was," Halas says, "and when he became available we traded for him." Bukich went to the Bears at the beginning of the 1959 season. He discovered that Chicago was oversupplied with quarterbacks, with three other Bs under contract: Ed Brown, George Blanda and Zeke Bratkowski. Halas shipped him to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Mr. Halas told me it was only temporary," Bukich recalls. "He said he would get me back in a couple of years. I didn't believe it at the time, but he was true to his word."
Bukich spent the 1960 and 1961 seasons with the Steelers, sitting through much of 1960 but playing most of the following year when Bobby Layne, the resident quarterback, was injured.
"By then," says Bukich, "I thought I was ready. It takes five or six years, and I had put in the time. I learned from Van Brocklin and Layne. Not that either of them went out of his way to help me. I mean just watching them operate. Van Brocklin was the best passer I ever saw. He got rid of the ball quick. He couldn't run, but in a small area his feet were so fast that he could avoid the pass rush. He was like Layne in running a club—in complete control. Both of them knew exactly what to expect from every defense and they knew how to pick them apart."
It was back to the Bears for Bukich in 1962—and back to the bench. "My development as a quarterback was not a matter of trial and error," he says somewhat ruefully. "At least I wasn't thrown in there as a rookie to make or break myself, the way Norm Snead was at Washington and Lamar McHan was with the Chicago Cardinals and Fran Tarkenton was at Minnesota. That can be disastrous to a young player. Look at the beating Snead and McHan took in their rookie seasons. Tarkenton survived because he is a scrambler and because he has an ex-quarterback as a coach. Van Brocklin understands a quarterback's problems."
Bukich continued, "But it seems that I was always going into a game under special circumstance. We were either so far ahead that I went in to hold down the score or so far behind that I went in to throw bombs for quick scores. I almost never played to a regular game plan."
That changed abruptly last year, of course, when Bukich got hold of the Bears and never let go. "The Bear offense is more complicated than most," says Bukich in his professorial way, "but I have been able to assimilate it. I enjoy that part of football. Our research shows that a team has the ball on offense about 13 times in a typical game. That is, if it makes no mistakes. If your defense can take the ball away from the other team six or seven times by interceptions, recovering fumbles, stopping them on third-down plays or on blocked kicks, then the ratio swings significantly in your favor. We have the kind of defense that can often give the offense that edge.
"A good memory for plays is essential for a quarterback, but it isn't everything. If that were the only thing, anyone with a memory and a reasonable arm could be a quarterback. The trick is to know when to use a play—for example, when to repeat a successful play. The repeat time varies with the team you play. A smart, veteran defense like Green Bay's adjusts quickly. If a play works once maybe you come back to it against the Packers one more time, but probably not a third.
"The Colts are also quick to read a repeat. I remember watching movies of a St. Louis-Baltimore game where the Cardinal quarterback was working a little flat pass into the linebacker's area whenever he saw the corner linebacker coming on a blitz. He burned them a couple of times and then pushed his luck and tried a third time. This time the Colts dropped a tackle off into the danger area, and the tackle intercepted the pass. From the stands it probably looked like a freak interception by a lineman, but it was the logical result of a bad repeat-play call."
Bukich has also put much thought and preparation into his plans for the future beyond pro football. He has spent six off seasons teaching in high schools in Illinois and Los Angeles. Recently he has worked as a television sports commentator for an ABC station in Chicago. "Football is not my career," he says. "I will take a long look at the situation after this season and decide how much longer I want to play. It will not be many more years, because the time has come for me to consider the long term. I am getting behind on my work toward the Ph.D. I have come to the point where I cannot keep that up and play football too. If we have a good season, then maybe I'll play one more year."
Be assured that Bukich is thinking diligently about football at this moment, not education, and do not be surprised if he is the very best quarterback in the league. There was nothing flukish about his performance in 1965, when he ranked first statistically. He had only nine of 312 passes intercepted, testimony to the accuracy he has acquired in his mature years. (Not long ago a Bear coach watched Bukich on the practice field throwing at a goalpost from the 50-yard line. "He hit it three times in a row," the coach said. "That's good enough for me.") Rudy's average gain passing was second only to Johnny Unitas', which means that he did not compile his statistical record merely on short, easily completed tosses.
Billy Wade, who probably would not have threatened Bukich anyway, underwent an operation for torn ligaments in his knee in the off season and, though he can play, he apparently has not made a complete recovery. Rakestraw, the youngster, is still an untried apprentice.
Bukich begins the season with two elements indispensable to an outstanding passing record—a fine set of receivers and an offensive line that excels at pass-blocking. "I'm a pocket passer," Bukich says, "and that great line gives me plenty of time to unload the ball."
In Johnny Morris, the little Chicago flanker, and Mike Ditka, the massive tight end, Bukich has two of football's best targets. Morris stands only 5 feet 10 and weighs just 180 pounds, but he is a very sophisticated receiver. "Give me one of those big old boys like Boyd Dowler of Green Bay every time," a veteran defensive back said last year after spending a long afternoon watching Morris pull down passes in his territory. "I can go with them. But this guy has got too much quick."
Ditka, of course, is the best tight end in the league, both as a blocker and as a receiver. He is built like a tall fireplug (6 feet 3, 230), but he has surprising speed. "He doesn't just block linebackers," says Don Currie, the former Packer now playing for the Rams. "He buries them."
Dick Gordon, the spread end, brings additional speed to the Bear receiving corps. Sayers, besides being an exceptional runner, is also an extraordinarily sure-handed pass catcher.
On his trickier days Bukich not only throws to Sayers but lets him pass—left-handed—too. This diverts little attention from the halfback's magical legs. He is the born runner that comes along once in a generation. "When I'm carrying the ball," the former Kansas All-America says, "there isn't any play going through my mind. When I come to a tackier I don't think, 'Now fake one way and cut the other.' My feet just go. I don't think about it at all. I just do it, and I don't really know how. Where my feet go, I go."
Sayers' feet went so far last season that he was Rookie of the Year in the NFL almost by acclamation. When he was not ripping out big gains from scrimmage he was making dazzling kick returns. His day of days was December 12 in Chicago, when he followed those golden feet to six touchdowns in the Bears' 61-20 victory over San Francisco. That performance matched the single-game record for touchdowns held by Ernie Nevers (1929) and Dub Jones (1951). It began with a little screen pass from Bukich that Sayers carried 80 yards farther, romped on with runs of 1, 7, 21 and 50 yards and concluded with a socko 85-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.
Nearly every week brought a phenomenal play. Early in October it was an 80-yard carry with a short flare pass against the Rams. The following week Sayers rambled 96 yards against the Vikings on a kickoff return. There was a 62-yard punt runback in the second Packer game as the Bears avenged their defeat in the first game. There was a nifty 61-yard tear around left end against Baltimore. Ultimately Sayers finished second only to Jim Brown in rushing, with 867 yards, piled up 660 yards on kickoff returns and 238 yards on punt returns and gained another 507 as a pass receiver.
The Chicago running game would be even more impressive if young Andy Livingston, a 234-pound fullback from Phoenix Junior College, had not suffered a leg injury last month. Livingston, a sleeper in the Bear camp three years ago, was regarded as sort of a larger Sayers. He has more speed for a short distance, but he is not as agile as Sayers, who, now that Jim Brown has retired, may be the top running back in football.
Livingston will not be back this season, but even so, the Bears will run well enough. Ronnie Bull, Joe Marconi and Jon Arnett are all experienced and capable. Charlie Bivins, another veteran running back, has been shifted out to tight end behind Ditka, giving the Bears needed depth at that position. Opening the way for the running backs and providing protection for Bukich is that tremendous offensive line, which has been well coached by Abe Gibron.
"They adjust to new situations very quickly," says Bukich admiringly. "And Abe is one of the best I ever saw at staying ahead of the defenses. He picks up changes in defensive tactics immediately, and he has taught the offensive line to do the same thing. Let's face it, every quarterback in the league needs help. When I hand the ball off, my back is to the line, I don't know what's going on behind me. My play selections depend a good deal on what my linemen and the other offensive players tell me about the defense. They have to read the tricks and report, and they have to be right."
To go with this formidable offense, the Bears have a defense that is somewhat younger than the grudging 1963 team but potentially as good. Like that one, this defense is built around a murderous middle linebacker. George, who held up the middle in 1963, has moved on to the Rams; now, of course, Butkus is in the middle. Butkus is a superstar of the magnitude of a Sayers, a Jim Brown, a Ray Nitschke. He has exceptionally quick reactions which allow him to make a mistake and recover in time to correct it, the speed to hurt receivers on pass defense and immense power. In a game last year Butkus destroyed the Los Angeles offense almost singlehanded.
Joe Fortunato is a veteran corner linebacker who calls defensive signals. At the other corner the Bears have had Larry Morris for a long time. Now Morris has retired. Jim Purnell, in his third season, seems a good replacement, but the Bears are not deep in linebackers and a key injury here could be damaging. The defensive line is both good and deep. Dick Evey, Doug Atkins, Bob Kilcullen and Ed O'Bradovich are big and experienced and help is available from a 285-pound rookie from Grambling, Frank Cornish. The deep defenders are exceptional. Bennie McRae, Richie Petitbon, Roosevelt Taylor and Dave Whit-sell are alumni of the 1963 championship team and have improved with age.
Says one Bear coach, reflecting the mood of the team: "I think we probably have the best 22 players in the league." He may be right, but the championship is usually won by the team with the best 40 players, and that team is Green Bay. Baltimore, too, seems to have greater depth than Chicago. If the Bears are lucky and can avoid key injuries, they certainly are talented enough to win the championship. If they have the normal number of injuries, a third-place finish is likely.
So much depends upon Bukich. He is not a demonstrative man. Colorful is not an adjective you would apply to him. But in him, slowly and painstakingly absorbed during the years of exile, is the stuff of a champion. Bukich is the son of a St. Louis crane operator, and among his most vivid memories is that of a visit to the steel mill where his father worked, dipping molten metal and pouring it with thunderous delicacy into a series of molds. "I could," he says, "barely stand the heat."
The heat is on as he begins his 12th season as a pro, but don't worry about Rudy; just sit back and watch him pour.